A Summary of the Bhagavad Gita

The Gita is the universal mother. I find a solace in the Bhagavad Gita that I miss even in the Sermon on the Mount. When disappointment stares me in the face and all alone I see not one ray of light, I go back to the Bhagavad Gita. I find a verse here and a verse there , and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming tragedies - and my life has been full of external tragedies - and if they have left no visible or indelible scar on me, I owe it all to the teaching of Bhagavad Gita."

Mahatma Gandhi

The Bhagavad Gita is probably the work of Indian literature with which Westerners are most familiar. Gandhi referred to it as his eternal mother. Despite its message urging war, he found in it support for his practice of non-violence.

The Gita is essentially a dialog between Vishnu, in his avatara as Krishna, and a warrior named Arjuna. Their conversation takes place on the battlefield, just as two armies are about to go to war. The combatants are the kauravas and the pandavas. They are fighting over the right to rule a Northern Indian Kingdom. The kauravas and the pandavas are members of the same clan, and it is precisely because the enemy numbers include his uncles, cousins and teachers; that Arjuna aggrieved.

When the battle is about to commence, Arjuna and Krishna, who serves as his driver, steer their chariot between the two armies and suddenly all the action is suspended. It is as if time has stopped, like a moment of eternity placed in the midst of time. Arjuna surveys the scene and begins to get melancholic and philosophical. When he sees his family members across the enemy lines, he drops his bow, having lost his will to fight.

Arjuna tells Lord Krishna that he cannot go to war. He has no desire to fight members of his clan whom he reveres. Arjuna concludes that such a battle can only lead to chaos. The term he actually uses is “adharma”. He sees no value in gaining wealth or earthly pleasure if this entails destroying his own family.

Fear of ruining the family remains a tremendous influence in individual behavior in India today. In South India, bottles of bear actually carry a warning label that frankly tells the purchaser: “Drinking liquor will ruin the family”.

Rather surprisingly, Krishna’s first response to Arjuna’s claims is to try to shame him. He taunts Arjuna and questions his masculinity, and commands him to get up and fight. Krishna tells Arjuna that fighting is his dharma. As kshatryia there is no greater honor or glory than to do battle.

When Arjuna still refuses to fight, Krishna tries another tactic. He tells Arjuna to think what people would say. According to Krishna: “People would tell of your undying shame. And for a man of honor, shame is worst than death.”

Arjuna does not respond to these appeals. He becomes much too thoughtful and philosophical to be bullied or shamed. Arjuna’s conflict is deep and genuine. His inner conflict is a familiar one. It is the dissonance that one feels when competing values clash. The most poignant dilemmas are not those between good and evil, which are relatively easy to solve. The problems in life arise when we must choose between the lesser of two evils, or the greater of two goods.

For Arjuna, the values he must negotiate are these: to refuse to fight and hence disobey his dharma as a warrior; or to go to war thereby inviting the negative consequences of karma, including family ruins, social chaos and continuous rebirth.

Arjuna wisely asks Krishna to be his guru. When such a moment of confusion arises one knows that a great opportunity of breakthrough has occurred. The student is prepared for insight.

Krishna’s first lesson recalls the teaching of the Upanishads. Indeed, Krishna essentially paraphrases a famous Upanishadic passage. Krishna’s point is simply the logical conclusion of a philosophy based on the immortality of the soul. Life and death are ultimately meaningless.

Arjuna pressures further. He is concerned with another matter now: the problem of karma. Perhaps it is true that one cannot kill the soul, but killing the body still is action and all action generates karma. How does one avoid the negative karmic consequences. Arjuna’s was schooled in the idea that karma of any sort cannot bring one to ultimate salvation.

Krishna now responds with another lesson. Krishna says: “It is not possible not to act. But it is possible to act without creating karma. One does this by performing all action without hatred or desire. Be intent on action, not on the fruits of action. Avoid attraction to the fruits and attachment to inaction. Perform actions forming discipline, relinquishing attachment. Be impartial to failure and success. These equanimity is called discipline or yoga.”

Krishna maintains that the true effects of karma conform to the will and the heart, not the action itself. Thus, an equanimous disposition frees one from bondage to karma. Krishna says: “Action imprisons the world unless it is done as a sacrifice. Free from attachment, Arjuna, perform action as a sacrifice”.

When Arjuna asks how one may learn to perform karmaless action, Krishna tells him that it takes discipline and proceeds to discuss over the span of many chapters the entire panorama of Hindu practices. Krishna discusses the value of asceticism, renunciation, study of the sacred Vedas, the sacrifices of the Brahmins, fasting, prayer, meditation. One can get a comprehensive view of the entire Hindu world just by reading the Gita.

The discussion continues. Arjuna makes objections and Krishna responds. At one point Arjuna becomes terribly confused and frustrated, and he plied to Krishna: “You can fuse my understanding with a maze of words. Speak one truth so I may achieve what is good”. Like all of us, Arjuna longs for clarity and simplicity. He just wants to know what to do. Simplicity, however, is not forthcoming. Krishna continues to spend many words as rich and as complex as Hinduism itself.

I think that this richness and this lack of clarity is one of the reason for the Gita’s vast appeal. Every Hindu finds something of value here. They find some wisdom that pertains to his or her place in life. The Brahmins find their sacrifices on it. The sannyasis see the renunciation and asceticism value. The warriors have their dharma affirmed. All ways of genuine spirituality are embraced and accepted.

As the dialog proceeds, Krishna’s lessons begin to focus more and more on himself. Now the teaching becomes increasingly characteristic of the path of devotion. Krishna encourages Arjuna to focus his mind, will and heart on God, and to let all else go.

“Men who worship me, thinking solely of me, always disciplined; win the reward I secure. The leaf, the fruit, the flower or the flower that he offers with devotion, I take from the man and respond to his devotion. Whatever you do, whatever you take, whatever you offer, whatever penances you perform, do it offering it to me. You will be freed from the bonds of action, from the fruit of fortune and misfortune. Armed with discipline, you will join me.”

For Bhakti practice what is done is not as important as how it is done. All that matters is that one does all things with faith and devotion to the god. It doesn’t even matter whether or not one is devoted to the god Krishna by name. One can worship other gods as long as they do so with fidelity.

The tradition has come a long way from Vedic times, when the priest insisted that the mantras of sacrifice had to be pronounced at just the right pitch.

As the teaching started to center more and more on the path of devotion, Arjuna feels his doubt melts away. In a climatic moment he asks Krishna to grant him the ability to see him in his full glory as god. Krishna gives Arjuna a divine eye with which to gaze on the gods form. The passages that describe this great vision are fascinating and memorable. The narrator tells us: “The light of a thousand suns would arise in the sky at once. That would be like the light of that great spirit. Arjuna saw all the universe in its many ways and parts, standing as one in the body of the gods of gods. Fulfilled with amazement, his hair bruising on his flesh, Arjuna bows his head to the god and joins his hands in homage.”

The Director of the Manhattan Project said that when he saw the atomic bomb detonated in the desert of New Mexico he immediately recalled the first two lines of this passage, comparing the light of Krishna to a thousand suns rising at once in the sky.

Arjuna’s response to this awesome vision is characteristic of such experiences as recorded in the history of religions. Ruddolf Otto called such events “experiences of the holy”. Otto said the experience of the holy is marked by a highly ambivalent reaction, just as we observe in Arjuna.

Arjuna is both terrified and fascinated with the sight. What Arjuna sees accents the absolute utterness of divinity. “I see no beginning, or middle or end to you. Only boundless stream in your endless arms. The moon and the sun in your eyes, your mouths of consuming flames. You alone fill the space between heaven and earth. Seeing the many mouths, eyes and your great form, the world trembles, and so do I.”

Now Krishna speaks: “I am time grown old, creating world destruction, setting in motion, to annihilate the worlds. Even without you, all these warriors raide in hostile ranks will cease to exist. Therefore, arise and win glory. Conquer your foes and fulfill your kingship. They already are killed by me. Be just my instrument, the archer at my side.”

After this vision Arjuna arises and goes to battle, claiming that his doubts have been dispelled.

We should try to get clear what precisely resolves his misgivings. Has he been persuaded by Krishna’s arguments or by the vision of Krishna and his manifest form? Is he convinced by seeing that Krishna embraces all things in life and death? What about Arjuna’s first uncertainty about fighting against his own clan? I’m not the first to thing that much in the Gita is left unsettled despite the fact that Arjuna himself seems to have gained clarity.


The battle commences and Arjuna and his brothers, the pandavas, ultimately win. Significantly, the Gita itself ends before we know the battle’s outcome. The question of who wins and who looses is not the issue in the Gita. Nor does the Gita really solved the problem of war. The two sides are not identified as good or as bad. There is no clear favorites here. War is, by almost any standard, tragic, according to the Gita. And yet, the context of war is significant in the Gita because the battlefield is really a metaphor for the soul itself, the mind and its struggle.

Ordinary Hindus restling with the issues of dharma is a much more present reality than the subjects of the Vedas or even the Upanishads. As a metaphor for the self and its eternal struggles, perhaps the Gita is a reminder that often there are no clear avenues of choice. Our decisions must be made in ambiguity and uncertainty.

The Way of Devotion

Hinduism affirms multiple ways of conceptualizing the divine and many spiritual disciplines for achieving the ultimate goal of release from the Samsaric world. We explored the Way of Action, which provides the great majority of Hindus with a manner for improving future rebirths in order to attain a life from which moksha can be realized. We’ve also studied the Way of Wisdom, which provides those who are so inclined with a path for gaining enlightened freedom in this very life. The way of wisdom, however, is arduous, and it doesn’t appeal to everyone. Many Hindus find the Way of Devotion more compelling.

The approach of the devotional path is to focus one’s passionate nature on the love of a personal deity. Bhakti, the term for devotion, tells those who take this path that the love of god is paramount above all things. From a complete whole-hearted love for god all good things come.

The way of devotion became important during the late classical and early medieval period. At this time, new texts were added to the cannon of Hindu writings. These writings include the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the two great epics of India, much like the Iliad and the Odyssey in ancient Greece. Also composed and accepted was a collection known as the Puranas. This collection, assembled between 300 and 1000 A.D., provided the sources for much of the mythology of the Hindu gods and goddesses. Consequently, these texts were very important in shaping Hindu piety and the Bhakti movement, and continue to influence popular Hinduism.

We will discuss the Bhakti path by means of the Bhagavad Gita, probably the most popular religious text among Hindus. Although it is not the most sacred or most authoritative Hindu writing, the Gita is widely read and extremely well-known. Many Hindus have it completely memorized.

Studying the Gita will not only provide us with an exposition of the path of devotion, but will also demonstrate how Hinduism embraces the other ways to god as well.

  • The Hindu God Vishnu: Before adventuring into the Gita itself, let’s first get acquinted with the god Vishnu, who in his manifestation as Krishna, is one of the story’s central characters. According to Hindu mythology, Vishnu is a member of a cosmic triad, the three gods who have the responsability for creating, maintaining and destroying the universe. The destroyer we have already discovered in the figure of Shiva. The cosmic creator is Brahma. The god who sustains the cosmos between the times of creation and destruction is Vishnu.

  • A Summary of the Bhagavad Gita: The Bhagavad Gita is probably the work of Indian literature with which Westerners are most familiar. Gandhi referred to it as his eternal mother. The Gita is essentially a dialog between Vishnu, in his avatara as Krishna, and a warrior named Arjuna. Their conversation takes place on the battlefield, just as two armies are about to go to war.

The Hindu God Vishnu

According to Hindu mythology, Vishnu is a member of a cosmic triad, the three gods who have the responsibility for creating, maintaining and destroying the universe. The destroyer we have already discovered in the figure of Shiva. The cosmic creator is Brahma. The god who sustains the cosmos between the times of creation and destruction is Vishnu.

Vishnu and Shiva are each at the center of a vast religious following among Hindus. The religion of Vishnu is known as Vaishnavism, and it is the most popular Hindu religion. Brahma, on the other hand, does not have a significant following. Do not confuse Brahma, the personal creator god, with Brahman, the Upanishadic term for the absolute reality that is beyond conception.

Vishnu was a deva in the Vedic period, but he was not specially prominent. The Vedas referred to him as the younger brother of Indra, and called him the three-stepper. Other sources relate the story of how Vishnu acquired this epithet. Bali, a demon king, invited the gods to a great sacrifice in their honor. Bali offered to fulfill any wish of each of his divine guests.

Vishnu, who appeared only as a dwarf, asked only be given as much land as he could take with three steps. Bali reluctantly agreed. Vishnu suddenly grew to immense proportions. His first step covered the earth. The second step reached the sun. According to the story, there was no space left for a third step. Bali then lowered his head in acknowledgement of Vishnu’s superiority.

In iconography, Vishnu is identified by the symbolic attributes he carries in each hand. In one hand he has a conch shell or Shankha, which represents his power to create and maintain the universe. In another, a sharp-spinning discus-like weapon, signifying the purified spiritualized mind. In a third he has a mace or Gada, which symbolizes Vishnu's divine power. In the fourth he holds a lotus flower or Padma, which represents represents spiritual liberation and divine perfection.

Vishnu’s Avataras

Vishnu’s most salient feature is his avataras or incarnations. The word avatara literally means to descend into. According to Vaishnava mythology, the god descends to earth and assumes an earthly manifestation at critical junctures in the world’s history. Tradition maintains that Vishnu has done this nine times in this era, and would do so again before the end.

Vishnu’s previous avataras include a boar, who carried the earth out of the primordial waters; a fish, that rescued the first human named Manu in the Hindu flood story; a turtle, a dwarf and a man-lion. He also appeared as the Buddha in his 9th incarnation. Thus the Buddha, the sage and teacher of Buddhism, has become incorporated into the Hindu pantheon.

Finally, in his tenth avatara Vishnu will return at the end of the age as Kalki, a horse-riding apocalyptic judge.

From the standpoint of religious practice, Vishnus’s most important avataras have been Krishna and Rama. Both figures are widely revered among Hindus. As Rama, Vishnu appeared on earth as a royal figure who defeats his wife’s abductor in the great epic the Ramayana. Rama is regarded as a great example of moral conduct and his marriage to Sita is appalled as the Hindu ideal.

Krishna’s Popularity in India and in the Western World

Krishna is a name that many Westerners would recognize. In the last half century, many in the West have become familiar with the name Krishna due a movement known as ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The Hare Krishna (as it is also known) was founded in 1966, by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. It belongs to the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, a devotional tradition based on the teachings of a 15th century saint and reformer named Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The focus of this tradition is abstinence of karmicly negative activities, such as eating meat, abusing sex and intoxication. It also involves the frequent chanting of the name of god. Its from their chanting that these Vaishnavites acquire the name Hare Krishnas, which is the name of one of the mantras that they recite.

Krishna’s popularity in India derives from two sources specially. One is his image as a playful and adventurous young man. One of the most delightful pieces of Vaishnavite literature is the Gita Govinda. This book tells the story of Radha’s passionate love for him. It is easily some of the most erotic literature in world religion. The Gita Govinda illustrates how on the path of devotion one might long for god as a lover longs for his beloved.

The other source of Krishna’s popularity is his role in the Bhagavad Gita. This text, which is usually translated as “Song of the Lord”, is probably composed between 1400 B.C.E. and 100 C.E. Its author or authors are unknown. Although it is usually read as an independent story, the Bhagavad Gita is actually part of the Mahabharata, which is probably the world’s longest epic poem, with around 100,000 verses. The Gita has been a great influence on Indian thinkers throughout its history, but it has also impressed many intellectuals in the West, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Stearns Eliot.

The Hindu God Shiva

In our discussion of the Indus Valley civilization we encountered the figure of the meditating horned man, who many identified as Shiva. Shiva also has connections with the Vedic tradition as the god Rudra, who was also called “the howler”. Today, Shiva is at the center of one of the three most prominent religions within the Hindu family of religions. Shaivism is the name of this religion and its followers as known as “Shaivites”. The other two major religions are focused on Vishnu and the Goddess.

The iconography and mythology of Shiva depict him as an extremely paradoxical and immensely complex deity. He is both the destroyer and creator of the universe. In Hinduism, the world itself undergoes birth, death and rebirth. Different gods are associated with different functions in cosmic creation and destruction.

Shiva is movement and tranquility. Light and darkness. Male and female. Celibate and promiscuous. One scholar in fact calls him the “erotic ascetic”. He afflicts with illness and yet he is the physician that possesses a thousand medicines. He is wild but he is compassionate.

These paradoxes serve to symbolize the limitlessness and freedom of the divine. They also suggest that the kinds of things that we might ordinarily consider oppositions are in fact closer than we might think. Destruction must precede creation. Birth comes before death, which leads again to birth.

The Images of Shiva

Three prominent images of Shiva illustrate this theology: Shiva as a meditating yogi, as lord of the dance or Nataraja and then as the half-woman lord.

The great yogi image accents Shiva’s ascetic aspect. It provides a model for many Shaivites who seek to practice asceticism. Shiva is depicted here in a meditating posture. His eyes are half-shut to the world, suggesting that he is in the world but no of it. He wears wild animals skins, emblematic of his primal energy. His home is in the Himalayas.

The Meditating Shiva

He carries a trident that represents control over mind, body and intellect. Around his neck is a tamed cobra symbolizing his triumph over the ego, because the ego, like the serpent, harasses us with desires. In the top of his hair lies the goddess Ganga. From here, the river Ganges flows softly to earth, suggesting Shiva’s compassionate nature.

The Nataraja is one of the best known images of this Hindu deity. The image depicts Shiva’s cosmic dance during the auspicious occasion of the Maha Shivaratri, the great night of Shiva. Shiva dances the night away dispelling the ignorance of the night. Now, the ascetic yogi is a dancer. He dances wild and free as indicated by his flying hair, but his face is tranquil and composed. His forearms indicate his great power, and each of them expresses a meaningful gesture. In one hand he holds a dhamaru (a two-headed drum). In the other he holds a flame. With the drum he sounds the world into existence. With the flame he destroys it in order to create another.

Shiva as Nataraja

One hand is upraised in a gesture that tells the devotee to fear not. The other hand points down to the uplifted foot, where the devotee may find refuge. It is an invitation to approach. His feet also make significant gestures. With a planted foot he crushes the demon of ignorance and sin. The lifted foot symbolizes his freedom from the world. Surrounding the entire image is a ring of fire.This is Samsara, the phenomenal world.

One final image of Shiva illustrates his endogenous nature. All the great gods of Hinduism have their essential female counterpart. This female aspect of the divine is depicted in a variety of ways. One of the more interesting ways is illustrated in the image of Shiva as the half-woman lord. In it, Shiva’s endogeny is shown as a single individual with male and female halves. Such an image suggests the all-encompassing nature of the divine. It reminds one of the limitations of anything in human experience to capture it.

Shiva as the half-woman lord

How Many Gods do Hindus Believe In?

The American philosopher William James once remarked that he thought that the issue of the “one” and the “many” was one of the most difficult and yet one of the most important philosophical problems. Most Westerners probably have little idea of what James is talking about or why it is important, but the issue may be quite familiar for Hindus, who have struggled with it for thousands of years.

For James, the question was whether it is philosophically better to conceive reality as a whole or as a collection of various events, experiences and things. In other words: Is reality one or is it many?

The same concern applies to our conceptions of god or ultimate reality. To Hindu ways of thinking, James’ dichotomy is a false dilemma. Reality can be both, one and many. It depends all upon how you look at it.

A famous story from the Upanishads relates how a great sage was questioned about the number of devas or gods. The sage answered by providing his interlocutor with a conventional pious answer: 3306. The interlocutor was not satisfied and pressed for another answer. The sage offered another answer: 33. This is the traditional number of Vedic gods. Once again the questioner was not satisfied. He asked again. The sage offered the number 6, then 3, 2, 1 and a half, and finally 1.

How many gods are there according to Hinduism? Although a Hindu tradition puts the figure at 330000000, perhaps a better answer would be simply: as many as you like. Although the questioner stops with the number one, the passage does not say that the other answers are wrong. Indeed, the sage continues to explain rationally each of his previous answers. By this account they are all true.

The many devas are just different expressions of the one reality: Brahman. At this level, the devas are said to represent ultimate reality as it is known or as it is revealed to human beings. Brahman is ultimate reality as it is unknown and unknowable.

The many gods of Hinduism are ways to enrich the understanding of the divine. To Hindu ways of thinking, ultimate reality is so far beyond our imagination that a single image, or even a handful of images would not do. If it must be portrayed, then many images and symbols succeed better than just one or a few.

Alain Daniélou once commented that 330 million is closer to infinity than 1.

The very number of gods and their complex manifestations serve to astound and overwhelm the human mind. That reminds us of ultimate reality’s unspeakable nature. With just a few images the human mind may be more likely to come to believe that they are not merely symbols but the reality.

Even though the Hindu pantheon is immense, individual Hindus do not give worship to all the gods equally. Those who wish to worship god usually have an Ishta Devata, a personal deity of choice. Often this personal god is the deva worshipped by one’s family or one’s village. It is certainly not uncommon for family members to be devoted to different gods. One’s decision to worship a specific god is uniquely one’s own and may be based on a special affinity that one feels for the deva. It might also be suggested by one’s astrological horoscope.

Devotees worship their particular deity as the supreme god, but they do not feel compelled to deny the reality of the other gods or even their supremacy for their followers. In this manner, both the one and the many are preserved.

The Power of Symbols and Images in Hinduism

Our discussion of the way of wisdom focused on the idea of Brahman. Brahman is the name for the absolute ultimate reality in Hinduism. It is so far beyond our human capacity to conceive that all efforts to think and speak about it are futile. It simply cannot adequately be conceptualized and described. It can only be realized.

The renouncers that seek to realize Brahman give up everything to which they were attached, including images of the divine and religious rituals. However, anyone who knows much about India knows that Hindus are anything but silent about gods. India is a land of an astounding array of divine images. There are pictures and statues of members of the Hindu pantheon everywhere you go. In public buildings, on buses, in taxis and on the sides of the road. The gods and goddesses of Hinduism cast a watchful eye over everyone. This is without mentioning the images in the temples and homes, where the gods are usually worshiped.

The tension we observe in these two impulses is a familiar one in world religious history. It derives from what may be the central religious endeavour: to conceptualize that which is beyond conception. There are two approaches that can be taken in the face of mystery. One approach is to say nothing at all. To think nothing, to imagine nothing. That is the mystical approach, the approach of the path of wisdom. The ultimate is unutterable. Say anything about it and it becomes distorted.

Once I got to the two final pages of a book and realized that they were completely white, except for these words printed neatly in the center of each page: “This page left intentionally blank”. I couldn’t keep myself from bursting into laughter. Saying the page was blank made it no longer blank. By simply uttering a truth, these words told a lie. This is the anxiety that some religious folks have about discussing or depicting God or ultimate reality.

A Zen saying puts it very succinctly: “Open mouth already a mistake”.

Images are Everywhere

There is another approach that is more characteristic of the mainstream of the world religions. This method is based on the belief that we are not at liberty to discard language, symbols and images of the divine. If we are to relate at all to ultimate reality, we must think about the unthinkable. We must imagine the unimaginable.

Even those traditions that consider themselves iconoclastic, such as the Western monotheism, still use images and theological language. One of the Ten Commandments forbids the making of graven images of the Biblical God. Yet, linguistic metaphors and images are used in abundance throughout the Bible.

As Aristotle wrote: “The soul never thinks without an image”.

Certainly, this is the most common approach among the religions of the world. The mystical traditions of image-less silence may appeal to some, but by far most religious persons need symbols to guide their spirits.

Many may make the great mistake of believing that our concepts are actually adequate to describe God. This is the sin of idolatry: confusing divine reality with what is merely the product of our minds and hands. If we are to speak at all about the divine, it must be done in such a way as to reveal truth without creating a lie.

Hindu Images

Now we will explore how Hindu theology tries to mediate divine reality to devotees by means of symbols and images without slipping into idolatry. This discussion is intended to bridge our explorations of the path of wisdom and the path of devotion. The way of wisdom gives expression to the religious impulse towards silence and unity. The way of devotion manifests the impulse towards symbol and plurality. This discussion seeks to show how and why the Hindu tradition embraces both.

We will also explore several aspects of Hindu theism that seem to be the greatest stumbling blocks for Westerners. Why do Hindus worship so many gods? Why do they make images of their gods?

The practice of creating icons of the devas often seems scandalous to many in the Western world. Many today continue to refer to physical representations of the divine not as images but as idols.

The easy identification of divine images with idolatry actually portrays a very superficial understanding of the nature and function of religious iconography. Images of the devas can be anthropomorphic or non-anthropomorphic. The countless array of non-anthropomorphic symbols include natural phenomena, such as stones, trees, rivers, even celestial bodies.

Other prominent non-anthropomorphic representations are the lingams, that symbolize the presence of Shiva; the footprints of Vishnu; and Yantras, which are geometric designs signifying the goddess.

Brahman pervades all there is, therefore, anything can manifest the divine reality and can yield access to the sacred for those who have the eyes to see it.

The Anthropomorphic Images

The anthropomorphic deities are those that appear human-like. Certainly, depicting divine reality as human-like is an extremely common practice in world religions. Humanity can conceive no form more beautiful and more sublime than the human. To imagine ultimate reality in some measure like us: with intelligence, will, emotions, perhaps even a body; helps us to grasp the mystery and to relate to it in ways not possible with non-anthropomorphic representations.

The danger, though, in personalizing the divine world in this fashion, is to bring it too close to the human. Making it too much like ourselves until it seems finite. Hindu images of the gods endeavour to avert this danger by incorporating elements that remind devotees that gods are also not like us. Many of the Hindu images seem simultaneously human and non-human. Ganesha, who is the remover of obstacles, has a human body but the head of an elephant. Lord Rama, a manifestation of the god Vishnu, appears to be completely human, but his blue skin reminds us of his divinity. Durga looks like a woman, but her eight arms tell us she is not.

Each of these instances helps give shape to the unseen and allow Hindus to glimpse some aspect of the divine. Durga’s many arms, for example, indicate the great power of the god. For many Hindus (many that cannot read), an image of a god is the source of their theology.

The Essence of the Self and Reality

We all like to believe that we are special. Almost all creation myths from the world religions reserve special mention for the creation of human beings as distinct from non-human beings. What is that that accounts for that sense or desire for uniqueness among human beings? What is our essence that makes us different from other beings? And perhaps different from each other?

Religions and philosophies of the last three thousand years have said that the essence of being human is something other than the material body. They call it with various names, such as self or spirit, but the word soul may be the most common. The sages who composed the Upanishads also called the human essence soul. They used the Sanskrit word Atman.

In the early Veda, the Atman was closely associated with breath. Based on the commonsensical view that as breath leaves the body at death, breath must be the soul. By the time the Upanishads were being composed, the identification of Atman with breath was unsatisfying to most thinkers. Breath was seen as too physical, too closely associated with the body.

These developments started a quest for a permanent immortal human essence. This greater sense of individual uniqueness introduces the desire to discover that within ourselves which endures the ravages of time, that which makes us special. If not the breath, what does constitute the human essence?

Perhaps the most likely candidate might be what we call the mind. The mind seems to be for many of us the center of our experience in the world, the seed of our personality. The authors of the Upanishads were reluctant to identify the human essence with the mind. Even the Buddha, an Indian contemporary of the writers of the Upanishads, thought that the body would be a better candidate for the soul than the mind (although he ultimately rejected the existence of the soul). The body does not change as often and as rapidly as the mind. How can anything as unsettled as the mind be our immortal self?

One of the earlier Upanishads says: “It is not the mind what we should want to know. We should want to know the thinker.” Where do those thoughts of the mind come from anyway? Who is in control of our thinking? In the Upanishads, the mind came to be seen as just another organ of sense, similar in function to the other five senses. What was of greater interest was not the content or the activity of the sense but what existed beyond them.

The Upanishads concluded that what is beyond the senses and the mind itself cannot be sensed or thought about. From this insight derives unique qualities of the soul. The Upanishads describe the Atman as imperceptible, spiritual, beyond human categories of thinking, beyond comprehension and immortal.

The Atman does not come into being in a specified moment. It simply always has been. This is a troubling notion for many Westerners who have assumed that the self or the soul comes into existence at a particular time and may receive or attain the state of immortality.

Since it cannot be identified in any way with the body, the Atman is not subject to the experiences of the body, such as death and birth. Yet the Upanishads affirm that the soul exists within a physical nature. It is interesting that although the writers of the Upanishads sharply distinguish the soul and body, they almost always resort to physical metaphors to express their views. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset said that given our human limitations we have to talk about the spiritual in physical terms. Even in the TV show The Simpsons when Bart sells his soul to Millhouse the cartoonist had to depict the soul in a physical and ghostlike way.

Ultimate Reality

The Upanishads sought to determine the human essence by turning inward but at the same time they sought a deeper understanding of ultimate reality, that which explains the totality of it all. What is the source of the universe? Where do we come from? Who rules over our joys and sorrows?

Many of these questions have not been answered in a satisfying way by the Vedas. To answer them, the Upanishadic sages reworked the conception of Brahman that we find in the Vedas and gave it a new meaning. Brahman means “that which makes great”. In the early Vedic era, Brahman was the power that resided in the gods. In the later Vedic tradition it was the mantra or the reality behind the sacrifice.

During the evolution of classical Hinduism, Brahman came to refer to the power of all powers, the deepest reality of the cosmos. This was a natural evolution of thought since the Vedas viewed a sacrifice as the reflection of the cosmos itself. It is a short step from the view that Brahman is the sacrificial power to the idea that it is the universal power.

As the concept of Brahman came to be identified as the ultimate reality, this concept became increasingly abstract and difficult to grasp. Although Brahman is removed from the world of everyday experiences, the Upanishads assure as that it is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Some passages in the Upanishads tell us that Brahman is one and undifferentiated unity. It is called the thread that strings together all creatures. Brahman is the source and sustainer of all that is. Brahman is also the destroyer of everything. Brahman is in everything. Brahman encompasses all that is good and all that is evil and yet transcends good and evil. It is beyond morality altogether.

Indeed, Brahman transcends all human categories. It is nirguna, a Sanskrit term that means “without qualities”. Its only quality is that of having no qualities. To try to describe it makes it into something that can be comprehended, which by definition it’s not.

You are God

As the sages of the Upanishads continued their quests for the human essence and ultimate reality, a new insight begins to break into awareness, an epiphany that comes to full expression in the later Upanishads. As they increasingly grasp the incomprehensible and unutterable nature of both Atman and Brahman, these two ideas converged. They concluded that that which is called soul is identical with ultimate reality itself.

To put this notion in more characteristically Western terms one might say that the soul and God are one and the same. The soul is not part of God as some traditions might be willing to say. In this view that is not possible because Brahman is indivisible and undifferentiated. Rather, the identity of Atman and Brahman means that they are consubstantial: two names for the same reality. The true self is God, it is ultimate reality.

The Upanishads express this insight in a variety of ways. One text asserted: “Whoever denies God denies himself. Whoever affirms God affirms himself.”

It is hard to imagine a more exalted view of humanity. This assessment of the self seems almost diametrically opposed to that of the mainstream of modern Western monotheism in which man must become poor so that God can become rich. “What is man that Thou are mindful of him” tells one of the verses of the Bible.

This view is what led the otherwise pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to call the Upanishads the most elevated reading in the world. “It has been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death”.

Despite this quite exalted view, the soul finds itself in an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Like many traditions that affirm the existence of the soul, the classical Hindu view understands that the embodied soul is not at rest. It is not its true home. It continues in this restless state seeking ever new manifestations until it finds rest with God.

According to the Upanishads, Samsara is the consequence of our own ignorance. Although our true selves are consubstancial with ultimate reality still we suffer and undergo transmigration because we are ignorant about the way things really are. Later philosophers developed the notion of Maya, a veil over reality. This idea is implicit in the Upanishads.

Maya causes us to perceive plurality when in reality there is only unity. We perceive and conceive the world as many things rather as the one reality that it is. Maya deceives us into thinking about ourselves as separate entities rather than as intrinsically connected. That very desire for being special is precisely the source of our misery.


The principle of the unity of Brahman and Atman is foundational for the path of wisdom. This idea gives shape to the characteristic elements of the path.

Taking the path of wisdom means living life in such a way that one’s very existence expresses the truth of this principle. It’s not enough that we have the knowledge of Brahman and Atman as a unity. It’s not enough that we grasp this intellectually by the mind alone. Mere knowledge must be transformed into a wisdom that deeply pervades the whole of one’s being.

To gain this kind of wisdom one must live as if there is no individual self separate from reality. Thus, accepting the path of wisdom requires renunciation, giving up all attachment to anything that encourages a sense of separateness or individuality.

When we talked about the men life cycle we briefly noted the stage known as Sannyasa. At this final stage of life a man may appropriately pursue this manner of being. As a sannyasi he gives up everything that has formerly marked his life: his possessions, his family, his occupation, even his religious practices, his caste and his name. All these ultimately keeps one entangled in Maya, the web of illusion.

The Upanishads put it like this: “When all desires that cling to the heart are surrendered, then a mortal becomes immortal”.

The path of wisdom entails a different orientation to discovering truth. Whereas conventional religion may encourage us to look for truth in a book or somewhere else, the Upanishads tell us that truth is not “out there”, but within. Within your deepest self. To discover one’s self is to discover God.

The Way of Wisdom

Although all Hindus take the path of action at least for much of their lives, it doesn’t bring oneself to final liberation from the wheel of Samsara. Karma, even good karma, keeps a person bound to the cycle of transmigration. Ultimately, one needs to transcend karma to realize moksha. One way the Hindu tradition offers for this attainment is the path of wisdom or knowledge.

As an austere and demanding discipline it is not a path that all Hindus wish to follow. Yet, it has been a very influential vision for the whole of the tradition and for those in the Western world that are familiar with Hinduism.

The path of wisdom is rooted in the Axial Age, when classical Hinduism took shape. This mode of spirituality was initially a response to the changing Vedic system and the religious and philosophical issues that affected Indians with a new urgency. These issues included a developing sense of the separate self and anxieties about death and rebirth.

The most important responses to these matters were recorded in a collection of texts called the Upanishads. The authors of these works are not known to us today. The oldest were probably composed between 800 and 400 B.C. but actually written down much later. Today, the Upanishads are regarded as revealed knowledge, which means that they share the same sacred status as the Vedas. In fact, they are considered to be part of the Vedas although they were developed much later.

The perspective they represent is often called Vedanta, which means the “end of the Veda”. One of the six orthodox philosophies of Hinduism takes as its name Vedanta. Although they are seen as continuous with it, the Upanishads are actually much more philosophical and more speculative than the earlier Vedas. This difference may be attributed to the change of emphasis in Indian religion that begins in the middle of the first millennium B.C. Shifting concern from ritual to understanding the self and ultimate reality.

The title of the Upanishads takes its name from the Sanskrit syllables that mean “to sit down beside”. This term suggests that what the Upanishads contain is knowledge that is transmitted from guru to student. The Upanishads were an esoteric form of wisdom, one that could only be gained from someone who knew.

There is not universal agreement about what works are included in the collection of the Upanishads. According to some, there are as many as 200 to 300 Upanishads, some of which were written as recently as a few centuries ago. The more commonly given number is 108, a particular sacred number in Hinduism and Buddhism.

Like the Vedas, the Upanishads are not always systematic or internally coherent. One of the purposes of the philosophy called Vedanta was to make the Upanishads systematically rigorous. As it is not always systematic, my presentation would make the Upanishadic world seem more orderly than it actually was.

The Upanishads focus on two central trajectories of thought. What is the essence of this human self and what is the essence of ultimate reality. We will look at each of these ideas in turn.

Continued in The Essence of the Self and Reality

The Way of Action

They way of action is one of the three ways Hindus live their spiritual life (and try to get closer to the goal of liberation). In a sense, all Hindus pursue the way of action in one way or another. Although moksha is the ultimate goal of all Hindus, most people are not primarily concerned with attaining it. For the most part, moksha is seen as a distant objective. Something that would be best pursued in another life time. The concerns of this life are demanding enough.

For many Hindus, just getting the daily bread consumes the greater part of the day. Even those who do not struggle with mere subsistence have good reason to let final liberation be the concern of a future life. Properly attending to one’s obligations in this life puts one in a better position for the next. So, one needs not seek Moksha to be a pious Hindu.

The Four Goods and Moksha

The Hindu tradition speaks of four goods of life. There is the good of dharma or duty. The good of Artha, or wealth. The good of Kama, or pleasure. And Moksha. Each of these constitute valuable and worthwhile aims in life. It is good to do one’s duty, to live with material abundance and to enjoy the many pleasures life has to offer. All of these things can be pursued by generating good karma.

As long as the pursuit of pleasure and wealth occurs within one’s moral obligations and dharma, these aspects of life are karmicly positive. Moksha, however, is a different matter. It is not just one of the four goods of life. It is also the highest good. In other words, to attain liberation from Samsara one must be willing to forsake the other three. The reason for doing this is simple. Even though doing one’s duty and pursuing wealth and enjoyment are viewed positively, they also keep one bound to the will of rebirth.

Generating good karma will certainly improve one’s status in a future life, but karma, even good karma, binds one to Samsara. For those who are not yet prepared to abandon a life of duty, material acquisition and enjoyments, the religious life means doing one’s best to improve this life and the next.

Positive karma may be produced by meritorious religious activity. In particular, rituals, festivals and pilgrimages; all of which are extremely important aspects of everyday Hindu life. Participating in these activities creates the karmic merit that yields favorable future lives. To learn about these rituals please read the article Hindu rituals.

The Tradition of Pilgrimages

Pilgrimage or sacred journey is an extremely common phenomenon in the world of religions. All the major religious traditions feature pilgrimages of one sort or another. Pilgrimages, as distinguished from other kinds of travel, entails undertaking the rigours of journeying for the explicit purpose of spiritual renewal, insight or enrichment.

Usually, the pilgrimage involves a sacred destination, a location associated with a god or a goddess. Actually, visiting such a place is believed to bring one closer to the divine. Thus, the outer physical journey mirrors the deeper and more significant inner spiritual journey.

There are many and varied pilgrimages in India. On any given day millions of Hindus are participating in them. Pilgrimage is an important and widely practiced aspect of Hinduism. Not only because pilgrimage is religiously meritorious, but because India itself is holy. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of India itself for Hindus. India is the holy land sacred to Hinduism as Israel is to Judaism. Hindus refer to the land as Bharatmata, “mother India”. The very trees, rivers, mountains and villages of India are often identified with the gods and important sacred events.

The Sacred City of Benares

The river Ganges is not only a sacred body of water but also a manifestation of a goddess. The city of Benares on the Ganges is specially auspicious and a particularly popular pilgrimage site. As the holiest place in all of India, Benares is regarded as the earthly home of the great god Shiva. Pilgrims by the thousands arrive to Benares daily just to bath in the sacred river.

It’s not uncommon to meet pilgrims who have saved all their lives to make the journey to Benares, or who walked on foot across India. Leaving home and taking the arduous journey to view this and other sacred sites is an activity that brings great spiritual benefits. Pilgrims often shave their heads or wear special clothing to mark their passage into the sacred. They frequently travel in groups to the pilgrimage site.

Many people travel to Benares as they approach death, actually hoping to die there. Dying in the holy city can cover a life time of sins and ensure a better rebirth. There are even hostels in Benares that specialize in serving the dying. Such places frankly state that those who take lodging there expected to die, usually within a few weeks. Those who hoped to live seek accommodations elsewhere. Upon death, deceased pilgrims are immediately carried to the Ganges, where their bodies are cremated by the untouchables.

Hinduism and the Path to Salvation

Here I would like to talk about how Hindus seek salvation, or how they call it, liberation from the cycle known as Samsara. In our examination of the beliefs in transmigration of the soul and the law of karma we noted how Samsara was not merely a description of the way things are. It is also life’s problematic.

It is crucial that we appreciate the fact that reincarnation is not seen as ultimately desirable. Many in the Western world think of reincarnation considering rebirth a good thing.

Considering death the dissolution of the self, they think reincarnation would spare them from oblivion and give meaning to their lives. A Western perfume company markets a fragrance called Samsara. They advertise it as a “timeless fulfillment”. I’m not sure if that slogan is the result of sheer ignorance or a reflection of a positive assessment of the idea of reincarnation. Hindus would nowise think of Samsara as a timeless fulfillment.

Samsara is the realm of suffering. The idea that one might continue wandering in the Samsaric world for eternity is absolutely horrifying. This view was intimated in the fact that rebirth was originally called “redeath”.

The idea of rebirth is appealing if we imagine that we return to this life with the privileged status that many of us enjoy right now. If that is the case, the law of transmigration would be a wonderful opportunity to experience and learn everything that the world has to offer. Samsara, however, implies the possibility of returning to life in forms that are not specially conducive to pleasure.

Many kinds of life, both human and animal, experience great amounts of suffering. Their lives are “nasty, brutish and short”. Even if we were to come back continually to a life of privilege and pleasure, we will probably find that ultimately tedious and distasteful. Forever is a long time.

The ultimate goal of Hinduism is thus to gain freedom from Samsara. The Hindus call this achievement Moksha, which means “release” or “liberation”. Finding Moksha is what each of us must do in this life time or in the next, or in one hundred life times from now. Eventually, we will all tire of Samsara and will muster the discipline it takes to be liberated.

We shall begin to explore the ways in which Hindus seek ultimate liberation. There is not a single prescribed path to salvation but several. In the final analysis, liberation comes in a multitude of ways.

Traditionally, Hinduism has maintained that there are three ways to live the spiritual life. These are known as margas. The word marga or marg is a common word in India and it is often used to designate streets or avenues. The three margas categorize certain emphasis within the Hindu tradition. An ordinary Hindu would often incorporate elements of each in his or her daily life.

The three paths are known as:

These three paths might be viewed as providing suitable spirituality for persons of different temperaments or proclivities. Those whose personalities are more orientated towards the will or volition may find the way of action more appealing. Those who are disposed towards a life of contemplation might gravitate towards the way of wisdom. Those whose lives are characterized by strong emotion and passion may be attracted to the way of devotion.

The word yoga is often used interchangeably with marga to describe these types. The term yoga, which many in the West identify with a specialized form of physical yoga, means discipline. The meaning of the term yoga is much broader than simply discipline of postures. It involves all manner of practices relating to one’s spiritual well being. It includes meditation, fasting, ascetic practices, ethical behavior and study.

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